What Is Handball? Why the Sport Should Be Your New Hobby

g\Girl playing handball

Tom Werner / Getty Images

Handball is a sport that began in 19th century Scandinavia and Germany. Although handball made its first temporary appearance in the Olympic Games in 1936 as an outdoor game with 11 players per side, it is currently played as a seven-on-seven indoor game.

Handball has been an ongoing Olympic sport since 1972 for men (Munich) and 1976 for women (Montreal). The sport is widespread, played in over 180 countries by approximately 19 million people of all ages. Not only is the activity entertaining, but it has physical benefits as well.

Alternate Versions of Handball

An alternate version of handball, called beach handball, was recognized in 1944 by the International Handball Federation. It will likely debut in the 2024 Olympic Games as a separate event.

Young children can learn the game by joining mini handball, which helps boost fitness and establish basic techniques and tactical competencies with less competition than traditional handball. The National Association of Youth Sports explains that mini handball reduces the contact and aggressive play associated with the adult version of the sport while keeping the benefits and skills instruction intact. Check with your local sports association to find out if mini handball is offered near you.

Street handball began in 1997 in Denmark involving playing the game in streets and parks without barriers and few rules or equipment requirements.

What is Playing Handball Like?

Handball is not for the faint of heart; it is a fast-paced game and can be described as borrowing elements of basketball, soccer, hockey, and water polo. To play handball, several actions are necessary, including hits, passes, jumps, blocks, pushes, runs, throws, and dribbling. It is considered a contact sport with intermittent periods of high intensity.

The goal of a handball game is to score by throwing a ball into your opponent team's goal as many times as you can during two periods lasting 30-minutes each. If you have the ball in your possession, you can only take three steps and have three seconds to pass or shoot.

Work with your team to pass and dribble the ball toward your opponent's goal in order to score. It's a very fast-paced game with a lot of action and scoring attempts which leads to high-scoring games of 20 or more goals. For most handball matches, four officials will be present including a scorekeeper, two referees, and a timekeeper.

Handball is a complex sport that requires coordination, endurance, strength, and an ability to tactically plan and recognize strategy in the game. Of course, recreational handball for all levels is available. Although the game is intense, few would expect high-level athleticism from those seeking the fitness and social aspect of the sport in a more relaxed environment.

Fitness Benefits of Handball

Handball is an athletic and fun sport that provides many fitness benefits.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Cardiovascular exercise is any type of workout that gets your heart rate up—handball is definitely a sport in which your heart rate will climb. Depending on the type of team you're on, you could be performing intense vigorous cardiovascular exercise, including high-intensity anaerobic intervals during handball.

There are many benefits of performing vigorous cardiovascular exercises. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Lowers your risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and some types of cancer
  • Boosts the quality of sleep
  • Encourages healthy weight balance 
  • Reduces stress, depression, and better ability to tolerate stress
  • May relieve feelings of depression and anxiety

Reaction Time

Being able to quickly react to the ball coming toward you, a teammate, or an opponent making a play is essential for handball. This mind-body reaction can be improved through practice and participation in your sport.

Improving your reaction time can help keep you safe because you can quickly respond to what is happening in your environment. In general, better reaction time may also reduce your risk of dementia and increase cognition.


Handball will help build muscular and cardiovascular endurance. Cardiovascular endurance contributes to a healthy heart—the better your cardiorespiratory endurance the better indication of aerobic health. Muscular endurance builds your body's ability to sustain repeated contractions against resistance over time. 

With better muscular endurance daily living becomes easier. You will find yourself better able to perform things such as shoveling the snow, climbing flights of stairs, carrying groceries or luggage. Better muscular and cardiovascular endurance gained by playing handball will also pay off in any other sports that you play.

Research also shows that better muscular endurance, along with muscular strength, leads to reduced risk of musculoskeletal injuries.


Coordination is a very significant physical factor that plays a role in healthy aging. The better coordination you have, the less likely you will become injured due to increases in dynamic and static stability, which means you are less likely to get knocked down or fall.

Every sport requires coordination, and handball is no exception. Passing, throwing, moving your body in space effectively—all of these movements and skills require and build coordination as you practice them.


Agility is necessary for moving quickly and changing directions spontaneously. Handball requires you to be agile, and when you are consistently playing the sport, changing directions, jumping, twisting, and other similar motions will help build agility.

Being agile is also very beneficial for your everyday life as you are less likely to fall or become injured, and you will be more stable.

Necessary Gear for Handball

There are some necessary and nice to have pieces of equipment for handball. You will, of course, need the ball, which is typically made of leather, athletic clothing such as a t-shirt and shorts, appropriate footwear, and two goals. It is wise (and sometimes required, depending on the level and league you are playing) to have knee and elbow pads. Handball wax is another item you may need.

Handball is a vigorous sport and consuming enough water is essential. When playing or practicing, you should keep a water bottle on hand to stay hydrated. Consider an electrolyte beverage if you are playing high-intensity handball for more than an hour.

Safety Precautions

Handball is an intense sport that requires a high level of skill. Even at a recreational level, injuries are possible. You should get medical clearance if you have any previous injuries or physical issues that may put you at risk.

It is also vital to warm up properly with some active and dynamic movements that will prepare you for the game ahead. Try these warm-up exercises before your next game.

It is not advised to play handball when you are pregnant due to the risky nature of the sport. It is a contact sport with high intensity and many directional changes. These factors are all ill-advised for those who are pregnant.

15 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Handball - news, athletes, highlights & more. Olympics.com.

  2. HANDOUT Mini-Handball Guidebook.pdf. National Youth Sports Association.

  3. Saavedra JM. Handball research: State of the artJ Hum Kinet. 2018;63:5-8. Published 2018 Sep 24. doi:10.2478/hukin-2018-0001

  4. Agarwal S. Cardiovascular benefits of exerciseInt J Gen Med. 2012;5:541-5. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S30113

  5. Chastin S, Palarea-Albaladejo J, Dontje M, Skelton D. Combined effects of time spent in physical activity, sedentary behaviors and sleep on obesity and cardio-metabolic health markers: a novel compositional data analysis approachPLoS One. 2015;10(10):e0139984. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139984

  6. Kim JH, McKenzie L. The impacts of physical exercise on stress coping and well-being in university students in the context of leisureHealth. 2014;6(19):51245. doi:10.4236/health.2014.619296

  7. Knapen J, Vancampfort D, Morien Y, Marchal Y. Exercise therapy improves both mental and physical health in patients with major depressionDisabil Rehabil. 2014;37(16):1490-5. doi:10.3109/09638288.2014.972579

  8. Stubbs B, Vancampfort D, Rosenbaum S, et al. An examination of the anxiolytic effects of exercise for people with anxiety and stress-related disorders: a meta-analysisPsych Res. 2017;249:102-8. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2016.12.020

  9. Jain A, Bansal R, Kumar A, Singh KD. A comparative study of visual and auditory reaction times on the basis of gender and physical activity levels of medical first year studentsInt J Appl Basic Med Res. 2015;5(2):124-127. doi:10.4103/2229-516X.157168

  10. Tun PA, Lachman ME. Age differences in reaction time and attention in a national telephone sample of adults: education, sex, and task complexity matterDev Psychol. 2008;44(5):1421-1429. doi:10.1037/a0012845

  11. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM's Resources for the Health Fitness Specialist. Wolters Kluwer Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2014.

  12. de la Motte S, Gribbin T, Lisman P, Murphy K, Deuster P. Systematic review of the association between physical fitness and musculoskeletal injury risk: part 2–muscular endurance and muscular strengthJ Strength Condition Res. 2017;31(11):3218-34. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002174

  13. Dunsky A. The effect of balance and coordination exercises on quality of life in older adults: a mini-review. Front Aging Neurosci. 2019;11:318. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2019.00318

  14. Markström JL, Grip H, Schelin L, Häger CK. Dynamic knee control and movement strategies in athletes and non-athletes in side hops: Implications for knee injuryScand J Med Sci Sports. 2019;29(8):1181-1189. doi:10.1111/sms.13432

  15. Ebben WP, Vanderzanden T, Wurm BJ, Petushek EJ. Evaluating plyometric exercises using time to stabilizationJ Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(2):300-6. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cbaadd

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.